How Mileage Runs Became Addictive or, Why I Just Booked a Two Day Trip to Doha (Guest Post)

Over at Cranky Concierge, we’ve been booking a lot of so-called “mileage runs” for clients this month. This happens at the end of every year, but I think we had our most extreme this year where someone needed 36,000 miles and we sent him to Africa and Asia within a few days. Ever wonder how people get to this level of madness? And wait, what is a mileage run anyway? Geoff Fischer (read his previous guest posts) is back with a story about how he became a mileage-runner.

This week is going to be a light one. No post tomorrow, so this one is extra long to last you two days. Hah. Happy holidays.

It all started innocently enough in December 2004. I noticed that I was likely to end the year about 1,000 miles short of both Premier Executive status on United and MVP Gold on Alaska. I didn’t have time for another work trip or vacation, but it seemed a shame to let all the year’s flying “go to waste” by failing to reach those elite tiers. Even worse was the thought of entering 2005 as a lowest-rung elite on my two most frequent carriers, missing out on the upgrades and other perks that were so tantalizingly close. I’d heard about mileage runs – flying solely for the sake of racking up miles. These were the circumstances that first led me to contemplate doing one myself.

Mileage Run via

Year 1
It took a bit of searching to find a destination appropriately far away with reasonable one-way fares. I eventually found good deals on midweek flights to and from Vegas. I wanted to minimize the cost and time away from home and work, so a morning out, afternoon back day trip seemed best. It was $84 for Seattle-Las Vegas on Alaska, and $88 for the return via LAX on United. (I had to return via LAX instead of SFO not for the fare, but because I needed the extra 275 miles.) No, I wouldn’t hit a casino or see a show – I wouldn’t even leave the airport. I had two hours in Vegas to switch terminals and grab some lunch in between.

Flying just to turn around and fly back is surely a bizarre concept to some – probably even many – but it made perfect sense to me. The $200 I’d be spending (including parking, gas, etc.) seemed well worth the comfort of elite status for 2005. So I booked it for a Tuesday, took the day off work, and it went as smoothly possible. I got upgraded to First Class on the Alaska flight down, and had Economy Plus seats on flights back. I made it through a bunch of magazines and other reading material I’d saved up. The United agent looked at me quizzically when I showed up at the gate without a boarding pass, but I explained I’d come in on another airline. The biggest hassle ended up being the incessant slot machine noise by the Ted gates as I waited to board. (It’s a unique form of torture having to hear “WHEEL! OF!! FORTUNE!!!” a thousand times in a row.)

Year 2
A year later, I found myself in a similar position. I had qualified on Alaska but was going to be short about 2,000 miles on United. No time for vacation, and the nonstop flights from Seattle to SFO or LAX wouldn’t earn enough miles – so I had to get creative. I ended up finding that United had cheap midweek fares on connections via SFO to a few smaller Northwest cities. And so for $134 I landed a Tuesday day trip to Boise. I thought that seemed cool, since it was both an airport and a state I’d never been in. Never mind that the scheduled time on the ground in Idaho was barely 45 minutes, as I was flying the same regional jet SFO to Boise and back to SFO. Again, all went smoothly. I got to experience the bathroom and free Wi-Fi at the Boise airport, and secured status for 2006. Win-win.

Year 3
I started to get more selective and picky as I moved from novice mileage runner to intermediate. In March 2007 I was doing a “status challenge” on Alaska, where I needed to fly 8 segments in a certain amount of time to re-obtain MVP Gold status. Trips for work and pleasure got me six of the eight, so all I needed was a cheap, quick roundtrip “segment run”. I was able to find a few options for about $125, but all involved regional jets. While flying to Pasco or Walla Walla had some novelty, I convinced myself it was worth spending more for the comfort of flying a mainline 737-800 to Spokane. I’d never been there either, and with a first class cabin there was a chance I’d get upgraded even as a lowly (not for long!) MVP. So I laid out $165 for a roundtrip from Seattle to Spokane, and did another same-plane turn-around. Got the upgrades both ways and only had to take a few hours off of work.

It Gets Serious
Things got more complicated a few years later. My last business trip of the year was to LA, but a mere roundtrip from Seattle was not going to yield the 5,000 miles I needed no matter how I connected. This time it was United 1K status on the line – the stakes were higher, and more creativity (and spend) was going to be needed. Work obligations meant I didn’t have flexibility on the front end of the trip, but I could route myself however I wanted on the way home. I tried all sorts of circuitous paths via New York, Florida and hubs and spokes in between. It took a fair bit of searching before I honed in on Honolulu. It was a no-brainer: great weather, 767 and 777 widebody service, and upgrades that could be confirmed in advance. Work paid for the flight down to LAX and I paid $386 for LAX-Honolulu-SFO-Seattle. This time I even cashed in some hotel points and stuck around for two whole nights. I spent time on the beach, got to see the Pearl Harbor memorial, and had a pretty good time sipping Mai-Tais and knowing that my status was secure for one more year.

Going Intercontinental
Flash forward just a few months and things looked pretty dire as I looked at my mileage balance the next November. I wasn’t just a few hundred or thousand miles short of 1K. I was going to be more than 20,000 miles short. The rationalization began quickly. I’d worked really hard that year. Hadn’t splurged on anything in a while. I had vacation time to use, though I had been planning to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my family and didn’t have a big trip in mind. Well that changed quickly. Suddenly a trip to Thailand and Singapore seemed like a great idea. One big problem was that upgrades weren’t confirmable. Without giving it much thought I clicked the dropdown box and changed my search from “Economy” fares to “Business.” With that one click, the addiction grew to a new level.

It turned out that there were “discounted” Business class tickets available over the holidays. Not cheap by any means, but cheaper than the rest of the year. And they earn a 50% status mileage bonus, which meant that the 17,000 miles of actual flying would net over 25,000 status miles, getting me over the all-important 100,000 mile mark. I made a trip out of it. Well, as much of a trip as I could since I was forced to fly back before New Year’s in order for the miles to count toward that year. It ended up being seven nights. I had a blast. Turns out the beaches of Thailand are a wonderful place to spend Christmas, though mom still hasn’t forgiven me for being AWOL. It was also my introduction to Singapore, which I loved (and have since been back to for a more proper visit).

This Year, Qatar
So over a decade of flying with various levels of elite status, I’d resorted to mileage runs five times, at increasing levels of extremity. Which brings me to this year. Things are a lot different for me – I moved to a new city for a new job that doesn’t leave me with much time off, and my flying for work has sadly been cut down significantly. Any hope of qualifying for another year as a United 1K was pretty much gone by late springtime. It took a lot of creative weekend trips throughout the year to even get close to hitting the 50,000 mile threshold for mid-level Gold status. And while even my addict’s brain (eventually) accepted that 1K was out of range this year, that didn’t stop it from urging me on to see if I couldn’t find some way to at least get to 75,000 miles for Platinum status.

This year missing Christmas with family wasn’t an option, which meant I’d have to squeeze it in to just a few days. The most comfortable option I found was Tokyo, with several 747 flights on my dates with confirmable upgrades. But I’ve been to Tokyo several times. And I love it, but it isn’t exactly a great winter destination. And it was going to cost $2,200. That was less than the splurge trip to Thailand but more than I could justify this year. A sign that I was recovering from my airline status addiction? Not really. I kept looking (as much as it pained me to pass up flying on the upper deck of the 747), focusing on dots on the United route map I hadn’t been to.

I considered Istanbul and even Lagos before finding Doha. United flies it in a 777 as a continuation of its Washington DC to Dubai flight. I’ve never been there, and the late-December weather seems good. And in a quirk of airline pricing, the fares were even cheaper to go on to Doha than to get off in Dubai. Proving that my addiction is as powerful as ever, I booked it the other day despite having to waitlist for upgrades on the 7,069 mile IAD-DXB-IAD flights. (They did clear later, thankfully.)

When I do the math and say out loud that it’s 47 hours of total travel time for 50 hours on the ground in a random place halfway around the world, I realize that it’s crazy. Those were going to be looooooong flights in coach if they hadn’t cleared. Heck, they’re long flights even in Business class. But I’ll get to catch up on some movies I haven’t seen, and see a new place…. and I’ll have Platinum status next year!

But alas, I know too well that euphoria is short lived. Once that mileage counter resets to zero on January 1, the cycle starts all over again. Once you’re hooked on status, the thought – and sometimes necessity – of a mileage run is usually just a year away.

Geoff Fischer is an aviation and travel enthusiast currently living in the Dallas/Ft Worth area.

[Map via Great Circle Mapper]

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